The Work of Our ConscienceWhen a child does something wrong, he should feel the wrong of what he has done through his conscience. But how does our conscience work?
Compliance to commands and rulesCONSCIENCE judges our actions whether they are in agreement with our moral standards (1 Sam 24:5; 2 Sam. 24:10). It executes that judgment within a person's soul as guilt, shame and estrangement from God (Psa. 32:4). When a child does something wrong, he should feel the wrong of what he has done through his conscience. But how does our conscience work?
Children would not experience guilt unless we first teach them principles of right and wrong. Once the child has internalised these rules, you can trust the God-given conscience to work (Prov. 20:27) and cause guilt to arise whenever a standard is violated. However, conscience is not an infallible guide to behaviour because it works according to the standards we have adopted. Therefore, it is important that the rules internalised are biblical and not legalistic or sub-biblical.
In 1 Cor. 8:7, some had a weak conscience due to ignorance and failed to understand that everything is clean ... thus feeling guilty when they should not. Nevertheless, that weak conscience should not be violated (1 Cor. 8:10-13) because to act contrary to one's own conscience is sin (Rom. 14:23). At the other end, are those with a seared conscience that has lost its sensitivity through repeated disregard of its promptings and through persistent embrace of evil. In the context of 1 Tim. 4:2-3, the evil is spiritual pride based on false asceticism.
Conscience is not implanted full blown in the human personality. A rudimentary conscience first emerges during the preschool years. How do we help our young children develop this conscience and internalised biblical standards?
Teach rules and values that are consistent with the Word of GodA child's behaviour is guided by concept of "right" and "wrong," prohibitions and expectations as spelt out by his parents. These should be solidly based upon the Word of God.
Personally, I am convinced that we must not place Christian disciplines like prayer, reading the Word, etc., in the same category as biblical imperatives. A failure to keep a discipline is not sin!
Enforce consequences for compliance and non-complianceNote that the mere effort to teach "right" and "wrong" will not necessarily lead to moral behaviour. We must expect obedience. One way is to enforce consequences for compliance and non-compliance to rules using rewards, relief, punishment and penalty.
Teach in a climate of unconditional loveHealthy conscience development requires moral instruction in which attention is given not only to "the what" is being taught (i.e., the contents) but to "the how" (i.e., the emotional tone in which the children are taught). Where the child experiences realistic expectations, encouragement, unconditional love and forgiveness, he discovers that obedience to rules is a blessing and develops a healthy sense of guilt as an indicator of wrongdoing.
But where the child faces unrealistic demands, disapproval and punishment for failure then he may develop an oppressive burden of guilt feelings. Obedience to rules becomes an "avoidance of evil" rather than the "practice of good." In a climate of strict parental demands, the child's response becomes automatic and unthinking. Such unthinking response may result in the child growing up following the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit (c.f., Matt. 23:23). It is important that the child has a reflective mind that is not afraid to appraise competing values and come to a new conclusion.
Grace (undeserved and unconditional) should characterise our dealings with our children (c.f., 2 Tim. 1:9 and Rom. 5:8). Nothing should change our love for and our relationship with our children ... they are and will always be our children. Parenting by grace does not mean that there is no law and that our children are free to do as they please. It is because we love our children that we explain what it means to be our children and the behaviour we expect from them. Where law precedes grace then the experience of love becomes contingent on "good behaviour."
Give reasons for rulesGiving reasons for a rule helps your child to judge the worthiness of the rule. This will help children to embrace the rule as his own. Internalization of a rule has taken place when a child feels ashamed of himself when he has violated that rule even when his parents are not aware of his violation.
Respond to misbehaviour with emotionally-charged explanationsWhen a child does not feel the wrong of what he has done, use emotionally-charged explanations to communicate the impact of his actions on others.
Appeal to his conscienceFinally, appeal to his conscience. When I suspect that my children have broken a rule, I say, "Daddy does not know what had happened but you know!"
A bad conscience is relieved only by confession of sin and the acceptance of God's forgiveness (1 John 1:9). It is important that our children learn not to wallow in self-depreciation but to trust in the finished work of Christ on the cross.
With internalised biblical standards, conscience serves as a check on behaviour. Conscience also urges one to do that which he recognises to be right and restrains him from doing that which he recognises to be wrong.